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Podcast: Website Accessibility with Morgan Steele

Welcome to our second episode of the College Marketing Podcast. If this is your first time checking out our show, this is the podcast for community college marketing professionals, by community college marketing professionals. Every week we interview a different professional on topics that they are deeply passionate about.

In this episode, we talk to Morgan Steele about the race community colleges are running to achieve ADA web accessibility standards for their websites. Morgan is the director of web and creative strategy at Central Carolina Community College in Sanford, North Carolina.

He recently gave a presentation on web accessibility at the PRIMA North Carolina Conference, so he has a lot to say about this topic. If you have any questions or comments about this episode, please leave a comment below!

If you haven't already subscribed to the show, what are you waiting for? You can find us on iTunes and on Stitcher Radio Apps. Be sure to follow us on Twitter @college_inbound, and on Facebook. Enjoy the show!

Show Note Links:

Below are a list of helpful links provided by Morgan Steele. You can find these links and much more on website accessibility on his website at


Interview Transcription:

I met you at the PRIMA Conference a few weeks ago, and as you know, we were there as a vendor, and one of the things that we do to help us remember faces with names is to jot down these little notes. You see where I'm going with this?

Steele: I'm afraid now. I don't know.

Medford: When I got back to the office, I guess Jake had took a note of you and I laughed when I saw it. He said, "Morgan Steele, fun guy with beard."

Steele: That's awesome. I'm okay with that. I'm fine with that.

Medford: Awesome. So you're forever known to us as the fun guy with beard.

morgran-drawingSteele: That's perfect. I hope that there was a little sketch that was jotted down there as well. If so, I'd love to see that.

Medford: Yes, all right. That'll be on Twitter in about two hours.

Steele: Fantastic.

I don't know what the vibe is like around the rest of the country, but all the community colleges in North Carolina seem to be talking about this issue of web accessibility. Why has this topic gained so much prominence recently?

Steele: That's actually a really great question, and I think it's a hot topic everywhere in the web in general. I don't know that there's a clear cut answer as to why it has all of a sudden been the initial boom that it has been, or the big boom that it has been. For years, every web book that existed had one chapter in it that said, "Oh, yeah, don't forget about accessibility." Generally, it was the smallest chapter in the book and it didn't say much more than that. It's really great now to see the big push for having accessibility. I think it's riding in on the coattails of the new responsive and adaptive movement that's going on, the big push to try to get websites everywhere and on every device and usable on every device. I think it's riding in on those coattails as, not only should it be on every device, but man, it should be accessible and easy to use on every device.

For those that don't know, what is accessibility?

Steele: Accessibility, it's a broad question. I think about it. I apologize. I can't remember who gave me the original idea, but really it's a part of progressive enhancement. It's a part of responsive design. It's part of universal design. It's whatever buzzword that you want to insert that's hot right now. It's part of the bigger web. It's all about making sure that everyone can get the content they need and the content that they want, no matter age, sex, race, whatever possible disability they may have, or hindrance or age or anything along those lines. It's all about getting people the content that they need.

In your presentation, you talked a little bit about something called section 508.

Steele: Section 508 is actually the legal requirements for all federal agencies. In 1998, Congress amended the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, basically to require that all electronic information needs to be accessible with people with disabilities.

From what I understand, I haven't read through all of it, but it didn't go into much more detail than that. It just said it needed to be accessible. They've been working on it for a while, and in February of this year, I think February 18, the United States Access Board actually released a proposed ruling of updating the 508 standards and the 255 guidelines that are included within that. Like I said, they're just the federal requirements that we need, but they're available right now for public comment until May 28, I believe, of this year, or of next year, excuse me.

I encourage anybody that's thinking about accessibility right now should get on there and read it and make sure that they're broad enough and they cover everything. I think some of those initial complaints was just that they weren't inclusive enough and that what little they did talk about really focused on, say, visual impairments, but didn't really necessarily focus on cognitive issues or anything along those lines. I encourage that everybody from all types of abilities and stuff get on there and make sure that you're covered by what's listed there.

Website content accessibility guidelines. WCAG. What are those?

Steele: WCAG is what most people like to call it. Basically, it's an organization that's come in, it's published by the web accessibility initiative, or WIA. They're part of the World Wide Web Consortium, the W3C. Basically it's just an international set of standards on how the web should work, how we should work on this accessibility. It consists on a set of guidelines for how to make content accessible. It's primarily for folks with disabilities but also addresses some issues with user agents and highly limited devices such as mobile phones and things like that, but its main focus is to help people understand the needs that accessibility creates and how to get people to make their stuff more accessible.

What are the types of things you should be thinking about when trying to make your website accessible?

Steele: I think it's the base, it's the skeleton. It's the structure that holds the rest of the website together, really. Paying attention to making sure your page titles make sense, because page titles are like titles on the spine of a book. You've got to, if you didn't have them you'd have to pull the book off the shelf and open it in order to figure out what was in the book. They help orientate people and get them in there. A lot of the stuff, like meaningful sequence, it's all about finding the information that the person needs in a quick and efficient manner, and so setting it up, setting up that structure in the beginning and working from that is a definitely must.

Even things like header tags, making sure you have an H1, an H2, and you keep that consistent throughout the website?

Steele: Definitely. WCAG, the thing about WCAG is, it's a unanimous decision group, so that every guideline they put forth has been unanimously voted in. As far as actual H1 nested under H2 nested under an H3, that came up for a vote and they couldn't get a unanimous decision. I really encourage it in my talks and when I work with people because it really helps set that structure, and oftentimes, assistive technology can, you can run basically a tree out of it, and it creates a tree so it tells you the H1 and the H2, and then it tells you what H3s and 4s are labeled underneath those other H tags. It creates this tree of what the page looks like, which can really help people to find information. Say I've completely read a page but I remember I need to go back to section 1 to find the answer to a question, it really helps for that structure and that meaningful sequence in order to go back to that and be able to find that piece of information.

I guess another thing I think about with this stuff is the end user, thinking about if a blind person is using the website, using that as an example, what type of technology do blind people use to browse websites?

Steele: There are a lot of different options. Actually, here's what I try to encourage people as well. It's a much broader question, I think, than just a blind individual, because you cover the full spectrum. Are we talking 100% blindness? Are we talking color-blindness, which comes in multiple forms? Are we just talking partial blindness, which could be due to cataracts, it could be due to old age, it could be due to a lot of things.

A lot depends on how they're coming to it, but you get things such as screen-reading software that reads through the page and tells you what's on the page. It tries to read things like images, things like that. Other people use things like Braille fingertip displays, which basically pop up and down really quickly and you can read the stuff that's happening on the page through these little pins that pop up and down. Depending on, again, on your partial blindness, perhaps you're just using some magnification software, you're zooming in on a page, that typical pinch and zoom on a cell phone kind of a thing. A lot of it really just kind of depends on how they're coming to the website and what they've got going on.

Everybody's diverse and we can't all assume that they're all using a screen reader or they're all using a specific technology and just build for that one. I really encourage that when we're thinking about accessibility, we really need to think about everybody and just making it easily accessible for everyone.

I see a lot of websites that have those features where you can zoom in on the text and most browsers have that functionality built in. You do the control plus. Is that a really necessary feature or is the browser functionality just not good enough?

Steele: It just depends. I'd really think about, I don't know, what kind of information you have on there, but oftentimes, the browser, and nowadays they're getting much better at it, but oftentimes they're pretty good way to do it. I almost wonder if, I'm not 100% sure the example you're talking about, but it could be that they're under some other kind of constraint, like they're worried that if you blow this up, it moves something else. They're trying to control that expansion somehow, but I don't know. I would hope that the browser would be able to do it. You're putting the power in the hands of the user. Instead of what you assume the website should be like.

Steele: That's something I really try to encourage as well is let's think about the user. Let's think about the people that are having these issues, and to me, for me, that's really what helped me figure out how to begin approaching things. Anytime I run into a dead wall or a dead end where I'm going, "Okay, what do I do with this? How do I approach this?" I try to start thinking through how other people would approach it and putting that anecdote in there really helps me to try to figure out how something may be used to sit on a page or what order it needs to be in. A lot of times we don't think through all that. We just get it up as quick as we can.

One thing, when I was going through your presentation, I noticed, what really shocked me was the issue with contrast and how much that plays a role, and color choices that you use on your website.

Steele: Yeah. Contrast is a tricky one, and it's so tricky because you don't notice it. You go to work everyday, you have the same computer. You pick up the same exact phone. You never quite notice it, but if you see a whole bunch of monitors that are all set up slightly different, they all have a slightly different color profile. Some people like it brighter. My wife loves it extremely bright. I can't handle it that bright. I keep mine lower, as far as the brightness level on the screen. You never know. Is that person working in a dark room? Is that person working in a bright colored room? Are there fluorescent lights? You just never quite know.

Contrast plays a big role in that because keeping it at a really great contrast ratio really helps the user to, no matter what their lighting situation, see what they need to see and read what they need to read. When you start dealing with some of that colorblindness, and some of that partial blindness type stuff, that contrast ratio really helps as well with them, and getting to make sure that people can read the content they need to read. I keep saying "read the content." It works for photos, too, because if there's not enough contrast in your photo, you can't see what's going on, either.

Another thing that surprised me was the context of various buttons. So much content on our website that we put, it's like, "Click here, learn more." When you're creating your call to action buttons and things like that, you really have to be careful with the choice of words that you make, don't you?

Steele: Definitely. Definitely so. That's another one that's, again, using that anecdote of trying to think through as a person, that's one that just really just hits home. When you close your eyes and you try to have somebody read to you the actual words that are linked on a page, and they all come up with, "Click here to learn more, click here, read more," those type things. They just read that list to you. It doesn't really do you any good. A lot of assisted technology gives you options to pull things like links out of context, so you need to make sure that the link makes sense out of context. I pull a list of their links and I'm going down but they all say, "Read more." I have no clue what any of them go to.

Is there a certain acceptable call to action, or a list of them that's good to use? Could you give me an example?

Steele: I'm not quite sure. I think mainly you just want to have the subject matter of what the link is going to take you to so that, if it's a book request, it really needs to say, "book request," rather than, saying "book request, click here," and click here's the only thing that's in, if it is the link. It really needs to, that link, you know exactly where you're going and exactly what you're getting.

Medford: That makes sense.

Steele: Likewise, too, if you're opening in a separate page or something, you really need to make sure you're telling the user that piece of information as well.

Okay. Another thing is images. Obviously images can't be read. How are we supposed to handle images on the website?

Steele:  Images, yeah. That's actually usually the place where everybody starts with when they hear about accessibility. They go, "Oh, yeah, I need to put alt tags on images." Everybody goes to their website. I did it. I'm guilty. I still have some on every website I've done so far, probably, that says, "alt image." It's the alt tag for your image and it says, "smiling student," or "happy graduate," or something along those lines.

The key piece that a lot of people miss, and like I said, I am 100% guilty of this, is that every image should have an alt tag, but not every alt tag should have text in it. Something like "smiling graduate" tells you nothing about the photo. What's the key piece of information that that photo is conveying to the user? That key piece is what needs to be in that alt tag. Images that are more put up for decoration, they probably don't need alt tags. If you've got, say, a directory where you've got a picture of a person and that person's name, is that picture important to have? Maybe the person's name in the alt tag, is that really important? Or does that become, at that point, a decoration on the page of what the person looks like?

Steele: You've really got to think through how the picture's being used and what it's trying to convey when you're trying to come up with how to label that picture. As much as you can, I would encourage a different thinking. There's two main kinds of images as well, so I would hope that your decoration stuff is more in the background. It's more put in with CSS and stuff like that, versus an inserted image should be telling something. It should be saying something, and important to go with your text.

Unfortunately, a lot of us that I assume are listening to the show, work inside the community college system, and a lot of people are using older browsers. Some of that ability to say, "There's a clear line, decorative images are in CSS," you can't really say that right now. It's a good direction to head. That's a good ideal to have.

What do you think about the idea of having a different theme that a user can switch to that gives them options where it takes out some of these images that are just decorative. It takes out some of the repeating content that's in the header of every website there is, and just really focuses on giving the person the written content of the website. Is that a good thing, or is it a bad thing that you're taking away some key images, possibly?

Steele: That's a tough question to answer. I sit on the fence on that one, because it really can give a better user experience if you are, like you said, stripping out some of that stuff or maybe the page goes to black and white as opposed to a blue background so that it's just plain easier to read and easier to understand. Then you've got to start thinking again, put yourself in the shoes of the user. Where is that option on the page? What do I have to get through to get to that option?

Medford:  I would think that that option would have to be in the top left corner as a sticky.

Steele: I would think so as well. To make it usable, it's got to be right up there so that it's the first thing they see. That would be my initial thought and then I guess my second thought is I'd really want you to have a reason for doing that. Then you're following the guidelines and you're building them out in a very accessible way. You don't necessarily have to go about building another page like that. I'd really try to think through whether it's important to have that second page. I'm sure there are use cases where that would be the ideal thing to do, but on a day to day, I don't know. I would strongly encourage you to try to not create another page, because again, depending on how you're setting it up, you're creating another section of content that you have to manage. What's the chances that one section gets out of date from the other. You change the date on one page but we forget to change it in the other page. If you're pulling out of databases, that can be different as well. I don't know.

Medford: Possibly if you could do it as a theme, where you're basically switching a theme, but basically the content's all pulling from the same database, is how I would see it working.

Steele: That would definitely be the more constructive way, the more responsible, reliable way to do it, I guess.

Moving onto audio, video, multimedia, how are we supposed to handle those type things?

Steele: In a nutshell, our users need the ability to control the motion. They need to be able to start it, they need to be able to stop it. They need to be able to change that flow and that timing of whatever it is, the video or the slide show or the, I kind of lump that all in together. They also need to be able to control any volume that's there. Turn it up, turn it down, turn it off. They need to be able to get anything that's presented in audio, whether that be a sound, whether it's important or it's audio from a video that somebody's talking, they really need to be able to get that in a printed form, so that could come across as captions.

That could come across as a transcript. That could come across in a couple of different ways. That's a nutshell that they need to focus on. There's some nitty-gritties here and there, but I always try to encourage, if you've got background audio on the page, put the stop button, that should be the very first thing that shows up on your page. Think about, if I am using a screen reader and all of a sudden that music starts blaring, I can't hear the screen reader talking to me. How can I find the stop button? That's why I would encourage, if that's the stop, it should go right at the very beginning of your HTML so that you can click it, stop it, and then I can actually hear the links on that page. I can hear what's going on.

We had our first episode of this podcast last week, and I sent it off to be transcribed. Every podcast episode that we produce from here on out, we're just planning on sending it off. We use a website called They charge $1 per minute to transcribe it. If it's a 30 minute podcast, it's 30 bucks. You send it to them and 24 hours, the very next morning, you have the transcription waiting for you.

Steele: That's fantastic. Yeah, there's a lot of services like that that have been popping up here lately. I haven't had much experience with them. Community college, most of the people that I've talked to in the community college are still trying to figure out, can they afford that, how do they go about doing that? Some of them are trying to play with, do we use work studies, that kind of thing, and trying to figure out how to go about it. I guess the one thing that I've seen that I would caution just to think through, is when you're picking a company like that, are they just running it through a computer, or is somebody actually checking it?  I know that that was one thing another company that contacted me about going through, and they were really pushing that a real person, a computer generates it, and then a real person goes back and double checks it. I think having that real person is a critical part.

Medford: Yeah. Absolutely. I think it's hard to do. In terms of video, pretty much if you provide either a transcription or a caption, you're covered.

Steele: Yeah. As I understand it right now, yeah. If you have one or the other, you're pretty good to go. With a transcription, you have to have that for a radio thing, but if you're doing a video, definitely, I would think captions should cover it. Whether you're doing a caption or a transcription, you want to make sure too that any critical sounds that happen are also included. If the phone rings and somebody picks up the phone and starts talking, you have no context for that dialogue unless you have something that says "phone ringing."

Medford: Obviously, if a lot of colleges have a lot of content, a lot of videos out there on their website, for instance, where should a community college begin when it comes to the journey of web accessibility?

Steele: That's a great question, and one that I think is going to be a little different for everybody. I don't know. I encourage people to try to break it up and take things one chunk at a time and not get overwhelmed. If video is that chunk, then I'd start by going through and just trying to figure out how many videos you've got out there, what's out there? Are they actually being used? One thing that I see done by different departments here at the college is they like to archive some of those videos. They like to just keep them around for, I don't know, history's sake, I guess. At this point, is it worth keeping them around, or is it worth just getting rid of it? The other thing I try to encourage, too, is when you're starting a new project, you know it's going to happen, so plan it in and make sure that it happens, so that any new content you're generating comes accessible and you're building it accessible, and then you can start working on the older stuff.

I know you had a list of tools that are available to marketers and web developers on this journey of web accessibility. Have any favorites off-hand?

Steele: There's tons of really good stuff out there. Doing Google search shows up with different things. I'm always trying different stuff. As we learn more as a community, new tools come up to address certain needs and issues. I'm always on the lookout for some new stuff. There's a non-profit organization based on the Center for Persons with Disabilities that's at Utah State called Web AIM, and they've got a lot of really great articles and stuff like that. They've got this Skip-nav feature that they have documented out and it explains why they've built it the way they build it and stuff like that. I think it's a really great article to read. It's a really great useful tool.

That same organization also has something called Wave, which you can tag the URL of your website and punch it in there and it basically runs a check on your website, tells you some of the needs or the things you need to fix or work on. I think that's really cool. There's 1001 color pickers out there. I find one by Leah Verue. It's really nice. It's big, it's bold, flashy, gives you that number right away on your contrast. I couldn't get through my day without the Firefox Developer Toolbar. I know it's available in other browsers, and actually I think I use it in Chrome as well some days. That's one that I find critical. You can hide pictures, you can ask it to show you alt images for pictures. You can turn off JavaScript with that thing. You can pull the source code. You can play with the styles. You can do tons of stuff with that bar. It's really, really useful.

Likewise is even just some of the developer tools that come built in to, say, Chrome or Safari- not Safari. They have some. Firefox as well. They all are coming with these developer tools built in that are pretty darn robust that can help you with things like accessibility but also with some of the SEO stuff and other features like that. The accessibility project, it's They are a new group of young folks, from what I can tell, and they're the ones that are taking accessibility to the next step, I think. They're asking the questions. You did all the basic stuff, but is it actually usable? Is it actually accessible? It's passing accessibility, but have you really thought through how the user is going to use it, and is it accessibility? They're posting articles and stuff like that, so I find them to be a really cool resource. Plus they're retweeting or they're posting about other articles and other things, tools, that they're finding around the web, which is always good.

I just heard the other day about Accessibility Weekly, which is I don't know. I officially signed up for it yesterday. I have not received anything, but it's supposed to be like a weekly email to say, "Here's a cool tip." I'm hoping that that's going to be a new cool resource. I'm constantly finding new stuff. There's a lot of good stuff and a lot of good tools out there.

All right. This is a very important issue that every community college in the country is going to be tackling if they're not tackling it right now, so they need to get started sooner rather than later. Thank you so much for coming on the show today and sharing your knowledge on web accessibility.

Steele: No problem. I'm really excited about it. It's a passion that I've started developing in the last few years and I really think once you know it and once you can work on it, it's a really good tool to have. I think everybody needs to be focusing on it, no matter what your website is, whether you're governmental, whether you're a college, you're anything. You really need to think about that accessibility and keep it in mind when you're building your pages.

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